Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade

Scrutiny of EU Legislative Proposals

2:30 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I ask committee members and guests to subdue their mobile phones. Also, iPads have a disconcerting effect on the communications system. Everybody might keep this in mind because they interrupt the recording system.

This meeting with officials of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is on the issue of the European Commission's communication on financing poverty eradication and sustainable development beyond 2015. I welcome Dr. Vincent O'Neill and his colleagues from Irish Aid. Members will be aware that since 2000 global development goals have focused on the achievement of the millennium development goals. The global agenda has developed a slightly different focus in recent years, as it seeks, among other matters, to develop a common approach among EU members on the issue of how to engage in international discussion on financing the development agenda post-2015. In addition, given the devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, I understand Dr. O'Neill will also give the committee a timely update on that issue. It is timely that he is here, particularly in view of the disaster in the Philippines. It is appropriate that he have an opportunity to discuss that and other issues with us.

We will follow the usual procedure: there will be a presentation for ten or 15 minutes which will be followed by an opportunity for members to raise questions or make comments.

Dr. Vincent O'Neill:

I thank the Vice Chairman and members of the committee for giving us the opportunity to discuss the important issue of the international development framework post-2015, as well as the pertinent issue of how it will be financed, focusing specifically on the Council's conclusions and the European Commission's communication on financing poverty eradication and sustainable development. I will outline the primary United Nations-led processes which are driving the international discussions, how the European Union is engaging with this process and, specifically, the role Ireland has been playing, most notably, during its Presidency of the Union in the first half of 2013 and, laterally, in its engagement at the United Nations. I will also address the key issue of financing and the Commission's communication which is the first step in elaborating on an EU position on the financing issue relating to the post-2015 goals.

The deadline for the achievement of the millennium development goals, MDGs, is 2015. Although much progress has been made, there are still areas where poverty remains far too high and key MDG targets have not been reached. The international community is now increasing its attention on what should succeed the MDGs after 2015. At a specially convened UN summit in New York in 2010, the UN Secretary General was mandated to take the lead in considering and making proposals about the post-2015 framework. In 2012, at the Rio+20 conference on sustainable development hosted by Brazil, there was agreement to develop a set of sustainable development goals and to establish an open working group which would make proposals to the international community about how the UN could develop these goals.

The post-2015 development framework refers to the process to establish a new set of goals to succeed the MDGs and to integrate this with the processes and work of the open working group in proposing sustainable development goals.

There are a few elements of the UN leadership of this process that I would like to highlight. The UN Secretary General appointed a high-level panel of eminent persons, co-chaired by President of Liberia, the UK Prime Minister and the President of Indonesia, to lead international consultations on proposals for a successor post-2015 framework. Over the past 18 months, there have been many global discussions about this, including engagement with more than 5,000 civil society groups and engagements with parliamentarians, members of the private sector and so on to solicit their views.

Secondly, the open working group on sustainable development goals, which was constituted after the Rio+20 conference, is in discussion at the moment and the intention is that it will submit a report to the UN General Assembly by September 2014. Related to the work of the this group is an expert committee on sustainable development finance, which is looking more specifically at sustainable development financing. Again, this committee will report to the UN General Assembly by September 2014.

Over the past two years, the UN has also co-ordinated global, country and regional discussions from different stakeholder groups about the successor frameworks. A road map has been agreed following the UN General Assembly special session of September 2013 to move these discussions towards a definitive way forward for the UN to agree a successor framework by September 2015.

That is the global process at play, but Ireland has been quite engaged with this and, given our Presidency of the Council of the European Union over the first six months of this year, we had an important role to play in engaging with the EU and member states in terms of their relationship with this process. Ireland hosted an informal meeting of EU development Ministers in February 2013 which was the first substantive political-level discussion in the EU about the post-2015 framework, which became a priority of the Irish Presidency. In April 2013, during our Presidency, Ireland, along with the Mary Robinson Foundation - Climate Justice, hosted a major international conference on the interlinked themes of hunger, nutrition and the impact of climate change with the explicit purpose of giving poorer communities around the world a voice on the international stage where they could have their say and make proposals to key international policy makers about the issues of concern to them that need to be reflected in the post-2015 framework.

During our Presidency, Ireland engaged with the Environment and Development Commissions, the European External Action Service and the respective Council Secretariats to agree an integrated set of Council conclusions, which were presented to the Foreign Affairs Council in June 2013. For the first time, that brought together the environment communities and the development communities with a view to preventing duplication of international conferences and goals and agreeing a single set of coherent goals. That was approved by the General Affairs Council in June 2013.

Ireland has engaged with the open working group on sustainable development goals. We are engaged with Denmark and Norway in a constituency as one of the 30 members of that group. Ireland's role was further underlined by the appointment of our permanent representative to the UN by the UN Secretary General to co-facilitate the preparations for the September event to agree a timeframe and a process for the finalisation of the post-2015 framework. The Tánaiste was the only EU leader at these discussions, in addition to the President of the European Commission, who addressed the opening session of UN meeting. The Tánaiste also chaired one of the closing sessions. At the UN, the Tánaiste committed Ireland to supporting new global development goals beyond 2015 and focused on the need to bring together the different communities such as the environment and development communities to agree bold targets to end extreme poverty and hunger and to protect our environment. He called for global goals with a clear commitment to implementation at national level, with specific new targets on hunger and nutrition; a strong new emphasis on agriculture, especially climate-sensitive agriculture; and a stronger and much more specific approach on the rights of women and girls.

That is the process for developing the post-2015 goals. I will now talk about the means of financing them. Over the past number of years, there have been many discussions about how the global community can finance new goals in support of poverty reduction and sustainable protection of the environment beyond 2015. Since 2000, when the initial MDGs were agreed, there have been many changes globally which are reflected in the way we approach development finance. In particular, the effects of the global economic downturn have had an impact on official development assistance, ODA, budgets. In many situations, the volume of ODA assistance has declined. There are new requirements in terms of international financing that have been agreed and brokered through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and are being further discussed as we speak at a meeting in Poland. There are additional financing needs in the area of climate change.

There was a time when, for many countries, ODA was a major component of development financing. That is not the case in many lower and middle-income countries at this point in time, although many of the least development countries are still very dependent on ODA. There are other forms of financing - remittances, money from foundations, debt and global and country-specific taxation - which need to be considered as forms of financing for the new development targets. To address this issue, the EU has issued a communication called Beyond 2015: Towards a Comprehensive and Integrated Approach to Financing Poverty Eradication and Sustainable Development. This is the first time the European Commission has engaged with how to address the issue of financing in a coherent manner. The development of this communication very much follows on from the Council conclusions agreed during the Irish Presidency, in which the European Union reaffirmed the need for a coherent and co-ordinated approach to the post-2015 framework.

Similarly, there are now calls across the European Union for a common and coherent approach to reaching agreement on how the post-2015 framework will be financed. The Commission's communication outlines the key issues for member states and the process and principles that should underpin a Europe-wide approach to the issue. The Commission suggests that because of the various international processes working on finance for developing countries, they need to be made coherent and mutually reinforcing with a commonly agreed set of principles. The Commission also argues that countries should be in the driving seat in determining where and how they generate the resources, where resources should be allocated and how resources should be prioritised at country level.

The communication notes that although the relative importance of ODA has declined in many but not all countries, it remains a key source of finance for lower income countries. To support domestic resource mobilisation, it notes the need to reform tax systems, strengthen tax administrations and implement legislation to reduce corruption. It highlights the need to focus on the effectiveness and quality of current spending, as well as on mobilising additional resources. It also highlights the drain on the public finances of many countries of illicit flows such as the proceeds of crime, tax evasion and corruption. It also raises the contentious issue of the future definition and role of ODA. This was first defined in the 1970s and a number of voices in the international community argue that the role and contribution of ODA need to be redefined in a changed context. The communication identifies the importance of private investments as the key drivers of growth and of remittances and private philanthropy as important sources of financing for developing countries. Following from the communication, it is proposed that Council conclusions on financing poverty eradication and sustainable development beyond 2015 will be adopted at the December Foreign Affairs Council.

I will conclude by referring to Ireland's engagement with this process. Ireland welcomes the Commission's communication as providing a good basis from which to build on our consideration of this complex issue. Work has started in Brussels on a joint development, environment and political working group format and we are closely engaged with these discussions and communicating with other Departments such as the Departments of the Environment, Community and Local Government and Public Expenditure and Reform in regard to Ireland's input. The Government is strongly committed to Ireland's overseas aid programme and its place at the heart of Ireland's foreign policy. The focus of our programme is on least developed countries, where there remains a significant dependence on ODA as distinct from other forms of development finance. On a per capitabasis Ireland is among the top eight providers globally of ODA as a percentage of GNI. In the course of this year the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade launched a new policy for international development which highlights the fact that lasting solutions to poverty and hunger must be underpinned by developing countries' ability to raise revenue. Aid is increasingly seen as a catalyst for development rather than the main driver. The policy recognises that aid is a major form of development finance for 30 to 40 of the poorest countries in the world.

This year Ireland has broadly stabilised the funding for overseas development assistance, despite our difficult economic circumstances. In 2014 the Estimates provide for €602 million in official development assistance. This will represent a small reduction on spending in 2013. Ireland's achievement in protecting its aid budget has been recognised by partners among the G77 group of developing countries at the United Nations and the OECD DAC.

The Government's new policy on international development focuses sharply on the poorest countries and communities in sub-Saharan Africa and the goals of reducing hunger, building sustainable growth and good governance and enshrining human rights. It provides a clear framework for the prioritisation of activities and the allocation of resources to maximise impact, strengthen accountability and demonstrate value for money in the coming years. The new policy also reconfirms our commitment to achieving the UN target of providing 0.7% of gross national product for ODA when economic circumstances permit.

Ireland remains committed to a single comprehensive framework and a single set of global goals, as agreed in the June 2013 Council conclusions. Building on the progress made during the Irish Presidency, we support a common and comprehensive approach to financing development beyond 2015. It will be important for the Council conclusions to highlight the important role ODA continues to play and the European Union's global leadership role in providing ODA. The European Union is the single biggest provider of ODA globally. ODA remains a major source of finance for low income countries and the European Union supports a rebalancing of external public financing towards the countries most in need. This is set out in the new EU policy on development assistance, which Ireland fully supports. From Ireland's perspective, any suggestion about reforming the ODA concept will need careful examination. It is important to maintain the integrity and credibility of the ODA concept. There may be some efforts in the global financing debate to seek to reduce donor efforts in meeting agreed targets. This would make the process of agreeing a new set of global development goals significantly more difficult. While recognising the potential of using grants to leverage public and private sector resources, we need to ensure this does not divert ODA from the provision of basic services in developing countries.

It is important that the Council conclusions reiterate the importance of domestic resource mobilisation, including taxation, and highlight the importance of taking action to improve domestic resource mobilisation at the national level. Ireland's position in this regard is reflected in our new development policy and our efforts to deepen the engagement of the Revenue Commissioners with the aid programme in order to help our partners to improve their institutions' ability to collect domestic revenues.

I welcome the active engagement of civil society, both in Ireland and internationally, on the complex issue of financing for development. At the UN high level event in September the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Joe Costello, took part in dialogue between civil society, governments and UN representatives and launched Trocaire's report, My Rights Beyond 2015: Making the Post 2015 Framework Accountable to the World's Poor.

I will be happy to take questions from members.

2:40 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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We are dealing with two issues at this meeting. Dr. O'Neill has set out the policy framework for the post-2015 development goals. We are also discussing the impact of Typhoon Haiyan on the Philippines. I want to separate the two issues because one relates to policy, while the other relates to immediate reactions in emergencies.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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I thank Dr. O'Neill for his comprehensive presentation which covered a wide spectrum of development and aid issues. It is a challenging scene, given the global economic environment and the many demands for aid made across the globe.

It is a challenging scene given the global economic situation and also the many demands for aid across the globe.

The preamble of the European Commission communication, A Decent Life for All, mentions human rights as an issue for aid. The committee has discussed the matter and we feel that reference should go well beyond a reference in the preamble and should be part of the objectives, implementation and accountability. What are Irish Aid's intentions with regard to the post-2015 development framework? How can we capitalise on our membership of the UN Human Rights Council in order to place human rights at the centre of that debate with regard to international aid?

Dr. O'Neill referred to sustainable investment finance. To what extent are the UN principles on lending and borrowing being endorsed, implemented and strengthened? Lending, particularly private lending, is obviously an issue in developing countries. Developed countries and particularly developing countries have been extremely badly affected by the global economic downturn over the past five years, which came about as a result of irresponsible banking and lending, and also a serious failure of regulation everywhere. Of course Ireland was a prime example of that. What emphasis will the review place on improving the regulation and supervision of the financial sector, and supporting developing countries' involvement in those particular reforms?

Dr. O'Neill made reference to value for money, which should obviously apply in everything. Every euro of taxpayers' money that is spent should come under the microscope in that regard. There is a need for thorough evaluations of development and poverty-reduction impacts, including whether the money could be better used elsewhere before promoting the diversion of scarce ODA to blend with loans that mainly benefit European companies. There is a danger in this. I know we have moved to sustainable development, which is important. However, it is equally important that we do not allow that to become distorted. It needs to meet the needs of the donee countries rather than trying to generate our own European economic development. Therefore there is a need to refrain from pushing trade and investment agreements and perhaps international taxation standards that are detrimental to developing countries' economies.

I commend Dr. O'Neill on his presentation. I am sure other members will have other issues to raise.

2:50 pm

Photo of Eric ByrneEric Byrne (Dublin South Central, Labour)
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I thank Dr. O'Neill and his team along with the political establishment of the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Gilmore, and the Taoiseach for carrying out phenomenal work on behalf of those suffering from hunger and deprivation. Notwithstanding our small population of 4.5 million to 5 million, it makes us extremely proud to know that we are now recognised widely throughout the world as one of the leading countries engaged in the process of looking comprehensively at the world, its problems and their causes, and presumably solutions to why so many are living in poverty, so many babies are dying prematurely and so many people are undernourished. I am very conscious that we have a programme running jointly with the United States on nutrition for children.

After taking the credit for doing phenomenal work, I wish to move to some of the hard facts confronting the committee and us all as citizens of the world. I congratulate the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on organising with the former President, Mrs. Mary Robinson, an event in Dublin Castle. That event gave those who attended an insight into the grassroots throughout the world who felt they had no voice. They were now facilitated for the first time with a voice and need the world to know of their predicament in their relative locations. For example, the pastoralists of the Maasai were present and outlined the complication of their lives owing to land ownership. The pastoralists desire to move around and restrictions are being placed on them. There were people from tiny villages in Nepal and isolated fishermen and fisherwomen from Lake Victoria in the Great Lakes area. For the first time politicians in the First World were listening to the voices of really interesting people from diverse regions who wanted their voices heard. In the development of the framework I hope we will pay due consideration to their voices.

This brings me to the kernel of the debate. I congratulate the collective world on implementing those millennium goals which it has implemented to date. We have been successful in three areas and we may have failed in another three areas. However, in some areas we have succeeded in halving the extreme poverty rates in the world, halving the proportion of people without access to clean water - no mean task - and significantly improving the lives of at least 100 slum-dwellers. However, we have not yet managed - the programme is to run to 2015 - to achieve the targets set on maternal health, access to sanitation and reducing hunger. They apparently remain well off track. We will be reviewing our strategy after the end of the 2015 goals.

Ireland has experience of empowering people or capacity building as a means of providing aid to countries. Does Dr. O'Neill believe capacity building is one of the most important areas in the provision of aid? The Gulu region of Uganda has come out of a terrible war, with experience of child soldiers, impoverishment and hunger. Ireland was supporting the redevelopment and integration of the people of that region. Within the Ugandan Government the President's office was discovered to have been defrauding this country's aid to the tune of €3 million and aid from Denmark and Sweden. A total of €12 million was being diverted by a sophisticated scam thereby depriving the people we are targeting of aid in vitally needed resources. However, I understand that Irish Aid had actually empowered the comptroller and auditor general's people, who then discovered the president's men were engaged in diverting our €3 million. We immediately stopped and we got the money back.

This is a classic example that shows if we provide strategic aid through capacity building it is possible to achieve so much more than just responding to the hunger pangs of malnourished children.

This is linked to the question, which has been touched on, of empowering these countries to have a proper taxation system to prevent the drain on their public finances by the flow of the illicit proceeds of crime, tax evasion and corruption, which fundamentally undermine the work of the MDGs and the countries providing development aid. Does Dr. O'Neill agree it does not sound as humanitarian as responding to an immediate crisis such as an earthquake, flood or tsunami but if we could provide services to weak governments to reform their taxation systems, for example, to strengthen their tax administration and implement policy, that would prevent corruption? It is a hugely complex issue to consider the world in general and impoverished regions in particular and to come up with a set of proposals but I am happy having read the Commission's report and given the involvement of the Government along with our dear friends from Norway and Denmark that we have something to say.

If we can copperfasten human rights as the fundamental issue when providing development aid and support policies for these governments and it is enshrined in the master plan of the UN, NGOs would be empowered on the ground, although it might not necessarily resolve everything overnight. I wish the officials the best with their work.

3:00 pm

Photo of Deirdre CluneDeirdre Clune (Fine Gael)
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I thank Dr. O'Neill for his presentation. I attended a showcase in UCC last Friday by a student who had been supported by Irish Aid. The organisation provided six-month placements in various locations. While preparing for the meeting, I refreshed my mind on our new policy, One World, One Future. Dr. O'Neill said the communication from the Commission on ODA will be agreed next month. Is he concerned that there may be a shift in emphasis toward allocation of funding or support? I accept his comment that Ireland is committed to giving support to the least developed countries and we do well in the context of our contributions on an international scale. Is there likely to be a change in emphasis that may not suit our ambitions?

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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It is most important in updating the development goals post-2015, which is incorporated in what Dr. O'Neill has told us, to have learned from the experiences of the past number of years and to put that to good effect. It is also hugely important that there is accountability and that the ways and means are found to ensure international aid can find a way whereby the opportunities for interfering with the free flow of aid to the people for whom it is intended are limited. The fewer the opportunities, the greater the efficiency and impact. If the flow of aid is not effective, then at times of economic stress, public confidence in the system is liable to wane and that can be damaging. The threat of fraud is greater in times of economic distress nationally and internationally, both from the point of view of the donor countries in terms of value for money and the recipients countries in terms of the temptation that might be there in certain circumstances.

Dr. Vincent O'Neill:

We have a statement on the emergency in the Philippines. I thank members for their supportive comments and questions. Senator Walsh and Deputy Byrne raised the issue of human rights. They are correct that this is a core consideration in planning for co-operation with partner countries. It is an interesting issue because in the report of the high level panel that David Cameron and the Liberian and Indonesian presidents chaired, it came across as one of the flaws of the MDGs as they are currently constituted, and a commitment to human rights is a prerequisite to development and poverty reduction. One of their strong recommendations is that human rights should be centre stage in any post-2015 framework.

This issue also came up in many discussions about the review of the White Paper and the development of a new policy in Ireland. There were many submissions, including from the committee, and other organisations made the case strongly that a commitment to human rights needs to feature much more centrally in the way Ireland's new policy is put together. Human rights has been inserted as one of the six core principles in the new policy, which will underpin everything we do. I refer to the Vice Chairman's comment on accountability. The importance of human rights governance and accountability is one of the three major goals that shapes how Ireland's future programme needs to be co-ordinated.

The fear we have is that following the HIPC programme, we are witnessing worrying tends in some of these countries where levels of indebtedness are increasing at a time ODA levels are not adequate or other forms of financing are not available and government revenue is not adequate. There is a fear we will go down this path again of countries becoming indebted and sometimes being loaned money by emerging economies.

Ireland supports the key principles mentioned through UNCTAD and other multilateral arenas to try to work with our partner governments on understanding what constitutes sustainable lending and what are the pitfalls countries need to avoid. It is easy to say we need our partners to comply with principles. We also have to work equally hard to help them access the resources they need to finance their national development programmes. That links to an issue raised by Deputy Byrne about the importance of revenue, which is reflected well in the Commission's communication. In many of the countries in which we are working, the potential for them to generate revenue for development is ten times that what they could ever hope to access through international development co-operation. This also came up in our discussions about the new aid policy and it is reflected in the policy but it is also integral to the discussion on financing for development.

How the international community can work with key partners to help them to boost their revenue generation is one of the issues of long-term capacity building mentioned by Deputy Eric Byrne. We have some programmes with Revenue which has been very enthusiastic about engaging more with us. The key political message in the new policy is that we will work with our partners, but we will help to wean them off a reliance on overseas development aid over time. The way in which we can do this is to boost national revenue generation. We have a programme of support focused on Rwanda; we have just produced a guidance note for all of our missions on how to support better domestic revenue generation in our partner countries; and we are examining deeper partnership with the Irish revenue authorities with a view to building on the positive experience we have had to date. We also support some of the work on taxation done through the OECD.

The issues of evaluation and value for money were raised and they are very important. We have had a strong culture of evaluation in development and co-operation for the reasons mentioned by the Vice Chairman and this is absolutely necessary when working in high-risk environments at a time in Ireland when people are rightly asking questions about whether we know what we are getting back and whether we are getting value for money or being defrauded. We must demonstrate not only that we can be accountable for every cent invested in the aid programme but what we are getting for the money we are investing in health, education, water and sanitation services, in other words, what are the returns.

A feature of Ireland's membership of the OECD is it subjects the official programme to scrutiny every five years. In January 2014 the development assistance committee will undertake a formal evaluation of Ireland's commitment to development and co-operation. It will be interested in meeting the committee as part of its deliberations. It nominates two peer reviewers, in our case Austria and Portugal, and Lithuania will also attend as an observer. They will identify one of our partner countries to visit. They will come to Ireland and meet the Houses of the Oireachtas, non-governmental organisations, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and other Departments. They will make a judgment call on whether Ireland's aid programme adheres to good international practice, whether we are focused on the needs of the poorest countries and what recommendations they might make on strengthening our performance in the years ahead. It is an important issue in giving assurance to the Oireachtas and Irish citizens that somebody is keeping an eye on this issue. The report will be made available in the public domain.

I thank Deputy Eric Byrne for his comments on the Dublin Castle event which several of us attended. For the reasons he mentioned, it was an important moment. We brought many participants from local communities from throughout the world and gave them a say. Their message is always that they are not being consulted. Everybody speaks about these issues in the corridors of Geneva, Brussels and New York, but local communities are not being consulted. They had an opportunity to give a view. The Tánaiste and the Minister of State gave a guarantee at the meeting that they would take these messages to the United Nations and the Tánaiste honoured this guarantee. He brought these messages to the United Nations General Assembly in September and they are continuing to inform. We see ongoing participation and dialogue with representative groups and beneficiaries as important for financing development and shaping a post-2015 agenda.

With regard to capacity building, the example of Uganda was mentioned. This has been an issue, with more failures than successes. We speak about supporting our partners in capacity building and know how long it took Ireland to establish good effectively functioning key institutions such as the National Statistics Office, the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Parliament and parliamentary committees. This matter is related to the accountability issue raised by the Vice Chairman. It takes a long time and sustained effort to work with these entities to help to build results. We are in a position to do this through the bilateral aid programme. It is also an issue which arose as a weakness in the millennium development goals. Everybody was focusing on what we wanted to achieve without focusing on what institutions should be provided with in order to have long-term gains in these areas. We have tried to reflect this in the policy approach, but we are under no illusions about how difficult it can be. It is also an area in which we are learning. We can have better linkages between Irish institutions and institutions in our partner countries. We have a very good long-term partnership between the ESRI and the equivalent entity in Vietnam. The ESRI relates its experience of generating useful data on economics and social development which can inform policy development over time.

To answer Senator Deirdre Clune, we are concerned about overseas development aid, but we are not specifically concerned about major changes taking place in the Council conclusions next month. There is recognition that the overseas development aid concept fashioned in the 1970s is no longer as relevant as it was, but major elements of it remain absolutely relevant today. The essential elements of overseas development aid relate to official giving from OECD countries. It also relates to whether it is given as grants or loans. It relates to the countries to which it is given and the activities for which it is given. There are elements in the debate who would like to see the definition changed to justify a decrease in the allocation of budget and other reasons. From our perspective, it remains absolutely valid to plan to give grants to least developed countries provided there is dialogue about their usage. Ireland's assistance is 100% untied and we believe we have some solid ground to work on, given our history. We will engage in the coming years as the debate unfolds, coming at it from a strong position of defending what is very positive about overseas development aid and trying to ensure these positives are not diluted by other interests which would try to justify a decrease in the allocation to their aid budgets.

I hope I have addressed some of the issues raised.

3:10 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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We will now move from policy, strategy and preparedness to emergency response, which is the end product and the test of the preparations. I invite Mr. Kelly to make his statement on the typhoon in the Philippines.

3:20 pm

Mr. Kevin Kelly:

I thank the honourable members of the committee. I am the director on the humanitarian side of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It is my pleasure to be in attendance to make a brief statement on the dreadful sudden onset crisis that hit the Philippines at the weekend. Typhoon Haiyan which made landfall across the Philippines on Friday, 8 November was the strongest typhoon in the world this year and one of the most powerful storms ever recorded. As members will be aware, it left a trail of devastation through the central islands of the Philippines. With power and telecommunications lines down and vital infrastructure destroyed, the impact of the typhoon extends beyond those areas in the immediate eye of the storm. On Monday the Government of the Philippines declared a state of calamity in Samar, Leyte, Cebu, Iloilo, Capiz, Aklan and Palawan provinces. As with all natural disasters, local authorities and communities, as well as the Philippines Red Cross, have led the initial response. Yesterday, however, the approach of a further tropical depression and anticipated heavy rainfall forced the suspension of the delivery of relief supplies to victims of the typhoon in certain areas.

While the media are reporting unconfirmed estimates of up to 10,000 deaths, the official estimated loss of life stood at between 2,000 and 2,500 as of yesterday evening's announcement by the President of the Philippines. Unfortunately, that number is likely to increase as the assessments continue. An estimated 11.3 million people across 41 provinces have been affected, representing more than 10% of the country's population, with up to 800,000 people displaced. As a nation prone to natural disasters, the Philippines has a relatively strong National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, NDRRMC. I wish to emphasise that the country's government's proactive evacuation of hundreds of thousands of citizens before the storm struck the coast is likely to have resulted in fewer deaths than may otherwise have been the case.

The response of the international community to the disaster has been rapid, with a large UN disaster assessment and co-ordination, UNDAC, team and a team of experts from the European Commission's Directorate for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection, ECHO, being deployed as early as Friday, 8 November to assist the national authorities to assess the impact of the disaster. These assessment missions have fed into the development of a UN flash appeal, launched yesterday by Baroness Valerie Amos in the Philippines. The appeal calls for funding of $301 million to cover immediate emergency relief and continued support for the affected populations during the coming six months. A lack of safe drinking water has been identified as the most immediate threat to life, with supplies having been cut off in many areas. Other high priorities include, as one would expect, the provision of shelter, health care, particularly for those with trauma injuries, the provision of food and sanitation and hygiene.

In terms of the response to date, on Monday the United Nations announced an emergency allocation of $25 million to fund critical relief efforts. This allocation came from the UN Central Emergency Response Fund, CERF, a pooled fund from which financing can be made rapidly available in the event of disasters such as this. It allows UN and NGO agencies to respond quickly to the needs of communities across the affected region. Ireland was one of the founding donors to the CERF on its establishment in 2006 and we are making efforts to maintain our support for it. We are consistently ranked among its top ten donors. Our most recent contribution was in December last year in respect of 2013 operations and amounted to €10 million. We are hoping to be in a position to make a similar contribution at the end of this year in respect of 2014. The Irish Government closely monitored the progress of Typhoon Haiyan over the course of last week and had put in place preliminary arrangements for a response prior to the storm making landfall on Friday. As a result of this preparatory action, Ireland was one of the first countries to react to this terrible disaster and our announced funding is the seventh highest stated national commitment to date.

As the scale of the destruction wreaked by the storm became evident over the weekend, our team worked to organise the airlifting of essential relief items to the value of €510,000 from our stocks in Dubai. An urgent call for proposals was issued on Sunday morning to our trusted NGO partners. It is expected that, on the basis of the proposals received by the close of business yesterday, at least €1 million will be released to support our NGO partners' relief operations, bringing the value of our total contribution to just over €1.5 million as of today. In addition, we have approved the release of €300,000 in funds that had been pre-positioned with NGO partners for sudden emergencies such as this. We expect to approve the release of a further €125,000 by the end of the week. We are also actively considering a further airlift of essential shelter items in the coming days on the basis of forthcoming needs assessments. In addition, members of Ireland's Rapid Response Corps, a roster of experienced humanitarian experts available to deploy at short notice, are on standby to assist with and fill critical gaps in the relief effort at the request of our key UN and NGO partners. We activated the corps on Sunday and 15 rapid response experts have declared themselves ready and willing to deploy. We fully expect a number of members to be deployed in the coming days on the basis of requests we receive through the mechanisms at our disposal.

I will highlight some of the many challenging facets of the response to the disaster. It is inevitable and understandable that after a few days the media will begin to highlight the difficulties involved in getting aid into a country such as the Philippines. Evidently, the damage caused to vital infrastructure, including roads, airports and telecommunications, is a critical challenge to the rapid delivery of relief items. The very geography of the Philippines, a large archipelago of more than 7,000 islands, also complicates the delivery of relief.

Last but not least, it is important to recognise the immense strain already placed on humanitarian agencies in terms of their staff capacity and on donors' humanitarian budgets by the unprecedented requirements of the response to the Syrian crisis. Just to illustrate this point, this morning I held a telephone discussion with one of our NGO partners about the dilemma facing it in terms of possibly needing to redeploy essential staff from Syria to the Philippines to meet needs there. These are the real challenges faced by agencies on the ground. The international community has learned many lessons from previous crises such as the 2004 tsunami and the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Under the leadership of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, clear systems have been put in place to ensure the most effective, efficient and rapid delivery of aid possible. Ireland has and will continue to make every effort to ensure our response is timely and effective and, within the means at our disposal, meets the most critical and urgent needs.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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I thank Mr. Kelly for his contribution and applaud the fact that we responded expeditiously to this terrible disaster. He referred to the NDRRMC in the Philippines, which seems to be good.

The saying, "Fail to prepare, prepare to fail" comes to mind. Is this is a feature of other at risk areas around the world, in particular in the Caribbean where similar disasters have occurred?

Reference was made to the Syrian crisis, which is another man-made disaster of significant proportions and emphasises the urgency in terms of resolving the conflict there. Resources are being diverted there which could be made available to assist when natural disasters, over which we have no control, occur. It behoves us to do everything possible to progress the Geneva II talks.

In complimenting the Department on its response, it appears that given the scale of this disaster, Ireland's contribution of €1.5 million, which when the additions mentioned are taken into account will probably amount to approximately $2.7 million, which is over 10% of what has been provided by the UN, should be greater. In saying that, I must surely then by critical of the UN. Also as Ireland contributes directly to the UN it is indirectly making an additional contribution. However, if as a small island we are providing more than 10% of what is being provided by the UN, then surely the UN should even at this stage be making a much greater commitment. I would welcome a response from the witnesses on that issue. I know a lot of countries are under pressure. The challenges being faced in Ireland, by citizens and the State, pale almost into insignificance when compared with this natural disaster.

3:30 pm

Photo of Dan NevilleDan Neville (Limerick, Fine Gael)
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I thank Mr. Kelly for his contribution. I agree with much of what Senator Walsh had to say. Is the Department satisfied that other countries, in particular the more powerful ones with huge populations, are making a contribution equal to that being made by Ireland? I refer in this regard to countries such as the United States. Is the Department satisfied that its contribution in terms of effort is equivalent to that being made by Ireland? The witnesses might outline what oversight the Department has on the ground in the Philippines in terms of the outcome of Ireland's contribution.

Photo of Michael MullinsMichael Mullins (Fine Gael)
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I, too, thank Mr. Kelly for his presentation. It is difficult to comprehend the scale of this disaster. I pay tribute to the rapid response of Ireland as a small country. Like previous speakers, I, too, would be concerned about the quickness of some of our larger European partners and other countries worldwide in terms of response and contribution. Ireland can be proud of its being the seventh largest contributor per head of population.

I am aware of the amount provide by the Irish Government through Irish Aid. Do the witnesses have information on how much Irish people would be likely to contribute through the various aid agencies? That information would be important and significant. While obviously we have reputable agencies working on the ground and doing tremendous work people want to know that those in distress are able to access the aid. The impression thus far is that some people have not yet been reached, in terms of aid, owing to transport difficulties. I heard this morning that the availability of fuel, which is in scarce supply, will be a major challenge. How is that issue likely to be addressed?

From a learning point of view, from where are the emergency items accessed in an emergency? Is there a stock of these somewhere? I would welcome if the witnesses could elaborate on how an emergency situation such as this is handled on the ground. We would like the message to go out from this committee that we would like the Government to do everything possible, and the Irish people to be as generous as always, to assist in this situation. It is incumbent on all of us to help the most vulnerable people in their hour of crisis. It is worrying that a decision may have to be taken on whether to abandon the people displaced in Syria because of the crisis in the Philippines or to continue to help both vulnerable communities.

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the presentation and compliment everybody involved in Irish Aid in terms of Ireland's quick response to assist in this disaster area. What amount of funding has been provided to date by the EU? Do the countries that have traditionally provided overseas development aid through tied aid change their system of support when a humanitarian disaster occurs? With regard to the unconfirmed estimates of death - while we would prefer if no deaths had occurred, I welcome that the number in this regard has decreased - am I correct that owing to communications difficulties there is a lack of intelligence or knowledge on the implications of the typhoon on various parts of the country? Are the witnesses aware of the basis for the figures provided?

Like Deputy Neville, I, too, would like to know the level of support provided by the Irish people through the non-governmental organisations, which funding is as important as the State's contribution, which I welcome. I hope that the Tánaiste and ODA will be in a position to quickly provide more assistance. I read recently that some of the Irish NGOs, including Trócaire, are working with sister organisations in the Philippines. We wish all the organisations involved well with their work and support for these beleaguered people.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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While we appear to have learned a little following each disaster, we do not appear to have learned the full lesson, namely, the degree and speed with which the responding forces must offer assistance. I would have thought that the series of measures to be taken immediately by the international community in such disasters would now be a prerequisite. For example, it was known for 48 hours that the typhoon was approaching, as was the case in other similar disasters. In my view, the first priority is organisation. We discussed policy earlier. With all the best intentions in the world, policy is of little benefit without the ability to activate that policy rapidly. We realise this. The country's affected must first make the call for and facilitate international aid. In such situations the heavy lifting equipment needed for the reconstruction of bridges across rivers, fuel supply and so on are necessities. They must be the first priorities in a disaster situation. To what extent has the international community come to grips with this?

To my mind, it has not just yet, and there is a necessity to do so. With the best will in the world, this country has given a very good example to everybody else by making a donation at an early stage. Members have already pointed out that other countries with much greater resources than are available here have not been as fast in addressing the matter. It is a matter for them to consider. The co-ordination of the effort and rapidity of the response are significant elements in the case of a natural or other disaster.

3:40 pm

Mr. Kevin Kelly:

I thank the members for their many very important and relevant questions, and I hope I can do justice to them. Senator Walsh asked about disaster risk reduction and whether it is a feature of disaster prone countries. It is increasingly a feature of such countries, which are prone to these kinds of cyclical natural disasters. Just last night I was listening to the President of the Philippines who said there are typhoons every year and the country suffered an earthquake not so long ago. That is why countries like the Philippines have disaster risk reduction management councils and elaborate co-ordination structures in place.

Irish Aid has also prioritised this area and not just at a policy level, where we have been promoting the concept of resilience, which is almost the opposite of fragility. We are trying to build longer term resilience of countries such as this that would be prone to these kinds of disasters, which is why we have supported, in a number of countries that we are engaged in, local authorities and governments in building capacity for disaster risk reduction. During our EU Presidency this was a major theme, and we helped to shepherd through some Council conclusions in the resilience area. It is very important to say that although it is a calamitous loss of life in the Philippines, the very prompt and pre-emptive action of the Filipino Government in evacuating thousands of people did greatly reduce the number of deaths.

There is a very illustrative example if one considers the impact of the earthquake that hit Haiti and the earthquake of similar ferocity that hit Chile; there were vast differences in the consequences and impact of those earthquakes because Chile had put in place elaborate systems around disaster risk reduction and management, whereas Haiti - which is a much poorer and less developed country - did not have those systems in place. Disaster risk reduction is a very important aspect of what we do.

The points have been well made about Syria and the crisis in the Philippines emphasises the need to come to a political solution. Syria is very much a man-made conflict and crisis but the scenario in the Philippines is of a very different variety. As I indicated earlier, real challenges have been posed. Some very welcome comments were made about the scale of our response, and members have welcomed the speed with which we reacted while legitimately questioning the amount of support. This year we have allocated over €11 million to Syria, as there is significant need in that part of the world as well. We have a finite set of resources at our disposal, and very often we are in a difficult position in trying to juggle those competing priorities. I fully agree that this emphasises the need to resolve that crisis.

On the question of whether the UN should be giving more, I should clarify that my statement referred specifically to the €25 million from the UN central emergency response fund released by Baroness Valerie Amos. This is a fund to which Ireland is a contributor but it is just one element of the UN's response. It is a pooled funding mechanism that donors such as Ireland can quickly use to bring resources to the ready for distribution stage. It does not represent the totality of the UN response, and a number of other UN agencies have issued separate appeals, such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNICEF and many other agencies that will allocate resources. It is important to make the point that the UN only has the sum of its member state contributions, and contributions made on a voluntary basis have also been affected by the global economic crisis. I am sure talk of the need for additional resources would be music to the ears of UN agencies.

Deputy Neville asked about what other countries are giving and if we are happy with the level of effort. Currently, we rank quite favourably and the Deputy is correct in that the resources we are likely to allocate in the coming days will be in the region of €2 million or $2.6 million. The United States has allocated an initial amount of $20 million and the UK has made an allocation of £10 million. Japan and Australia have contributed $10 million each and Canada has contributed €10 million. The European Union made an initial allocation from emergency resources of $4 million and it has indicated that $40 million is foreseen down the line from development funding. We are still very much in the early stages of identifying the needs of the crisis, and some of my colleagues have attended meetings in New York, Geneva and Brussels. There is a great deal of energy around trying to gather the momentum and as many resources as can be made available.

Deputy Neville also asked about oversight mechanisms for the aid at our disposal, which is a very legitimate query. We do not have an embassy in the area, and although we have diplomatic relations with the Philippines, our embassy is through Singapore. There is an excellent honorary consulate service to support Irish citizens in distress in the Philippines but we do not have an Irish Aid office or mechanisms. On the humanitarian side we are working through reputable UN agencies, subject to audit, accountability and strict co-ordination mechanisms that we have audited in the past and which we will be able to monitor in the future.

With regard to non-governmental organisation, NGO, funding that will be made available, this will be done through a set of reputable NGOs that we are confident has a solid track record of engagement in humanitarian interventions such as this. Many of them already have previous or current presence on the ground in the Philippines, and through the accountability mechanisms we put in place through documentation, we will consider the possibility of field monitoring and ensuring we have the best possible value. We must see that there is effectiveness in the response.

Deputy Smith asked about EU funding, which I have mentioned, and queried whether the aid is tied or untied. Humanitarian aid is seen as separate, and just as much as we maintain a distinction between programme development aid from Irish Aid, which is long-term in nature and programmed in a different way, humanitarian aid is very much driven by the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence. Humanitarian aid would be delivered in grant form and in an untied manner.

Deputy Smith also asked why there was confusion about the number of deaths, and we have also asked that question. Very often there are wildly varying estimates of numbers. We have all seen the news coverage of the Philippines crisis and many areas have not yet been accessed and information has not yet come from many municipalities. Roads remain impassable and we have not even been able to get telecommunication links with certain areas. The President of the Philippines has put the variance down to emotional officials providing very high numbers.

I am not sure on what basis those initial figures of 10,000 people were presented by the media, but the current official estimate we have from the Philippines is approximately 2,500. Unfortunately and sadly, however, I expect that figure will rise.

I was also asked if I have an estimate of what funding will be available from the Irish public. The answer is "No" but, as we are all aware, the Irish public is notable for the generosity it shows at times of crisis. Even when times are tough at home, Irish people are known to be the world's most generous donors on an individual basis. I am not referring to government aid, but donations from people's pockets. We expect that the Irish public will probably respond to this with its usual generosity. We, representing government aid, will of course wish to keep an eye on that and ensure that, in the context of the resources we have at our disposal, the Government is also responding in a similar way.

I will finish on the issue of the stocks, in response to the question asked by Senator Mullins. However, the Vice Chairman asked about co-ordination and if we had learned any lessons regarding co-ordination and why the response always seems to be so slow and chaotic. We have all seen the dreadful images of looting, chaos and desperate people, and we heard some very disturbing reports of eight people being killed in a stampede into a warehouse last night. It always looks as if it is a very chaotic response. The United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination, UNDAC, team leader in the Philippines in a media interview yesterday described it as chaos, but organised chaos. In fact, there is a very elaborate system for co-ordination. Lessons have been learned from the experiences of Haiti and the tsunami. There is an elaborate system in place. Valerie Amos, who has visited Ireland and whom the committee has met in the past, pulls rank as the senior UN person. She comes into a country such as that and the UN humanitarian co-ordination system kicks into action. There are nine thematic clusters for co-ordination at both the field and global levels, and each field level cluster is led by a UN agency. I will not go through them all but, for illustrative purposes, UNICEF leads a nutrition cluster, the World Health Organisation, WHO, leads a health cluster and emergency shelter is led by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Systems kick into action and the UN organisations we support fall in line with those systems of co-ordination. Every attempt is made to ensure there is a co-ordinated response.

Of course, this is typhoon season and one can anticipate that there will be typhoons at this time of year. However, I have outlined the reasons for how stretched the humanitarian system is. That is not just NGOs and bilateral donors such as Ireland, but also UN agencies. It is very difficult to have all of the resources at the ready for when something such as this happens. Unfortunately, that is the case. However, even in respect of Ireland's small contribution and the team I am leading within the Department, just yesterday - the Vice Chairman asked a very pertinent question - our evaluation and audit unit shared a document with me which contained evaluations of previous responses to Haiti and the tsunami, with six or seven lessons that I should bear in mind as I co-ordinate the response to the Philippines. Therefore, there is an effort in Ireland and internationally to learn from previous experience.

I have spoken at length so I will conclude on the issue of stocks. The question was about how that works and how it happens that we have tents, tarpaulins, ropes and such equipment at our disposal. Basically, this is through Ireland's rapid response initiative. The rapid response initiative was established in 2007 by the Government. It involves having a roster of skilled experts at the ready, as well as stocks. We have stocks such as those mentioned by the Senator in different depots throughout the world. There are five depots - in Subang, Malaysia; Panama; Dubai; Accra and Brindisi in Italy. These stocks are located at very strategic points around the globe so they can be readily made available to respond.

In fact, we were in something of a bind for the current crisis at the weekend because we had just utilised all of the stocks Ireland had ready in Subang, Malaysia, which is closest to respond to the Philippines, because we had responded less than a month earlier to the terrible events in Bohol in the Philippines. In a situation such as that, the partnerships we have mean we were able to borrow the stocks of other donors and fly goods from Dubai. Our stocks from Dubai will be the first airlift supplies to arrive. We faced problems over the weekend securing the right aircraft that could land in these very difficult circumstances, but I am happy to report that, at 4 p.m. today, our airplane from Dubai should have just touched down in Manila. It should have landed this morning but it was delayed. By 7 p.m. Irish time it will touch down in Sebu, in the Philippines. That will be the first of such airlifts. We will plan to do more because even if our budget gets depleted towards the end of this year, happily we have additional stocks on hand to deploy for this crisis, if necessary.

3:50 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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It is worth pointing out, following the discussion we have had, that you are on the right track and have the right priorities. Supply, transport and communications are basic requirements in any campaign, be it military, political or aid. We have some experience of those too. It is hugely important that the concentration is directed in the way that is most required at the time. All of us have many constituents from the Philippines who have integrated very well into our society. In that regard, it would be important to have some special diplomatic provision made, so in the event of circumstances such as this arising there can be a recognised path for communication and discussion.

I thank you for coming. I am sorry Ms Sarah Hunt, Ms Karen Millar and Mr. John O'Grady did not get to speak, despite having sat in the front row, and I acknowledge their two support colleagues sitting at the back. We thank you again for a most interesting discussion. No doubt, we will have to visit this subject at times again in the future.

The joint committee went into private session at 4.08 p.m. and adjourned at 4.10 p.m. sine die.